LeBron James and Kevin Durant will likely finish first and second in the MVP balloting, in that order, for the second season in a row. It will take two more seasons for Durant to surpass LeBron in their MVP duel.
Remarkably, LeBron continued to improve in this, his 10th season. The three-time MVP put up historic numbers while leading the Miami Heat to a league-high 66 wins. His 31.67 PER ranks fourth all-time (via basketball-reference.com), and he shot 56 percent from the field, which is unheard of for a perimeter player.
King James is unquestionably the greatest player on the planet. But Kevin Durant is closing on him.
Durant was primarily a scorer when the Seattle SuperSonics (now known as the Oklahoma City Thunder) selected him with the second pick in the 2007 draft. He has worked tirelessly to round out his game during his six-year career. K.D. became more of a presence on the glass, refined his shot selection and worked on his handle.
Durant's growth translated into success for the Thunder. The franchise's win percentage climbed in each of his six seasons (.244 in 2007-08, .280 in 2008-09, .610 in 2009-10, .671 in 2010-11, .712 in 2011-12 and .732 in 2012-13.)
The 24-year-old made his greatest strides this year. Though he failed to win a fourth consecutive scoring title, Durant averaged career highs in assists, steals, blocked shots, free-throw percentage, field-goal percentage, PER and defensive rating (via basketball-reference.com.)
He became the seventh member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club (shot over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on three-point attempts and 90 percent from the free-throw line.) According to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, the magnitude of that accomplishment was not lost on Durant's teammate Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook on KD (soon) clinching 50-40-90: "That’s a bigger accomplishment to me than probably anything else in this league besides the MVP"— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) April 16, 2013
K.D. showed the greatest improvement in the two areas where the gap between he and James was the widest: passing and defense.
Prior to the 2011-12 season, Durant's career-high assist percentage (an estimate of the percent of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor) was 13.5 percent (2008-09 and 2009-10) (via basketball-reference.com.) That percentage jumped to 17.5 last season and climbed to 21.7 this year.
Durant still fell far short of LeBron's 36.5 assist percentage (via basketball-reference.com) and will likely always trail James, who often serves as the primary ballhandler in Miami's offense.
However, Durant does not need to match LeBron in every category. He can catch James as an overall player by closing the gap in categories such as assists while distancing himself in other areas, such as three-point and free-throw percentage.
Durant's progress has been evident defensively as well. In addition to averaging career highs in steals (1.3 per game) and blocked shots (1.2), his defensive rating (100) continued to improve (via basketball-reference.com.)
Defensive rating is far from a perfect measure of performance. For example, Durant's rating was one point better than LeBron's this season (101) (via basketball-reference.com), though no basketball insider would argue that he is the superior defender.
However, Durant's defensive ratings indicate a clear trend and are supported by the naked eye test. He is a much better individual and help defender than he was a few years ago. His defensive rating in his rookie season was 110. In 2010-11, it was 107. Last season, it dropped to 101 and was down to 100 this year (via basketball-reference.com.)
Early in his career, Durant struggled with defensive rotations and could be rendered off balance by a juke. He has since built up the strength in his legs, which improved his balance and allowed him to use his freakish wingspan to contest shots. In the past couple of years, Durant has followed LeBron's lead by guarding the opposing team's best wing player down the stretch of games.
When will Kevin Durant win his first MVP award?
Despite Durant's tremendous growth, he has been unable to catch LeBron because LeBron continues to improve himself. King James maintained the same production in every facet of his game while taking his offensive efficiency to another level this season, shooting 56 percent from the field and 41 percent from behind the arc.
It seems as if James has reached his peak, at age 28, though it would have been easy to say the same thing last year. A study conducted by Basketball Prospectus a few years ago concluded that players are likely peak between the ages of 25 and 27. While modern medicine may have pushed that back a bit, it is still fair to assume that at 24, Durant has more room for growth than LeBron.
The gap between the two is still wide enough that Durant is unlikely to catch James next season. The same can be said about their respective teams.
That dynamic may change in the summer of 2014 when James and his teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can opt out of their contracts. With a crippling luxury tax in place under the new CBA, Miami may not be able to retain all three. LeBron could also choose to sign with another team. Playing for a less talented team would hurt his MVP chances.
In contrast, Oklahoma City has Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka locked up in long-term deals. They should continue to win over 55 games in each of the next few seasons.
If Durant continues to improve at the same pace, he will be in position to outduel King James for the MVP award in the 2014-15 season.